When the cameras stopped rolling and the accolades ended at the NASCAR Nationwide/Camping World Truck series banquet at Miami’s South Beach in November, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon stood admiring one another’s championship bling.
The 20-somethings could just as easily have been comparing fraternity rings. After all, Stenhouse and Dillon will be forever intertwined as part of an elite society of stock car racers.
Unlike the majority of graduates, however, Stenhouse and Dillon finished at the top of their class. And with “NASCAR title” topping their resumes, the future is bright for both the drivers and the sport.
What differentiates these youngsters from top champions in other sports is their humility and appreciation for the opportunities they have been given. While Stenhouse and Dillon came from different backgrounds, each driver received tremendous support from family and owners along the way to mold these champions for the challenges that lie ahead.
Stenhouse’s trials have been well-documented. Tony Stewart, who fielded cars for Stenhouse in USAC, recommended his driver to NASCAR team owner Jack Roush. At 20, he competed in the ARCA Series and won two races for RFR. In 2009, the rookie showed tremendous promise behind the wheel of a Roush Fenway Racing Ford during a limited seven-race run in the Nationwide Series.
By 2010, Stenhouse was set to run for rookie honors, but Roush parked the driver after he wrecked the No. 6 Ford five times in the first 12 races. Roush sent Stenhouse to work in the shop. He described his protégé as being “driven to be competitive to the extent of self destruction to start with."
But Stenhouse didn’t argue. Nor did he complain. He showed respect for his owner, dug in and learned from the experience. He learned what it means to be part of a team. Certainly, the seasoning grounded him before he re-emerged, holding off NASCAR veterans on the way to his first title.
“The one biggest thing I think I learned from everything Jack has done for me is that he cares about me as a person and really wanted me to succeed,” Stenhouse said. “If he didn’t care he wouldn’t put me in the body shop. That is one thing I learned from my dad. He was tough on me growing up but it was always for a reason.
"Jack has been an awesome team owner. He has done a lot of great things in NASCAR and I am glad to be a part of this one little thing. He has been doing it a long time. He has his ways of doing things and you have to look at the positives from it.”
Still, when Roush tested the driver early in the process even Carl Edwards, Stenhouse’s teammate and a former Nationwide champ, was surprised by his boss’ hazing of the young driver.
“I didn’t know if he’d be able to survive Jack,” Edwards said. “He was on Ricky. He was not building Ricky up. He was challenging Ricky every day. I think Ricky has shown everyone — myself included — how good he is.”
Stenhouse won two races and showed tremendous consistency with 26 top-10 finishes in 34 races during the 2011 season.
Roush rewarded Stenhouse last May with his first Sprint Cup start, which came behind the wheel of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford when Trevor Bayne was sidelined by illness. The 24-year-old Olive Branch, Miss. native rose to the task with a ninth-place qualifyiing effort and an 11th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway — one of NASCAR’s most demanding events.
Stenhouse is expected to continue his path into the Cup Series this season as he makes his Daytona 500 debut in the No. 6 Ford. He will defend his Nationwide championship as well.
“Throughout this year I have tried not to get too high just because I know how low those lows can be,” Stenhouse said. “I have tried to stay pretty level throughout the whole year, even to this point and after this point. Once you win a championship, you still have to come back the next year and do it all over again. I am trying not to get too high on it. I definitely appreciate where we are.
“It is a lot of hard work that the guys put in the shot, the engine shop and everybody at Ford. They all stood behind me when we weren’t running good. It is nice that we are here now and I can bring them to this point and we can do it as a race team.”
While Stenhouse had to regroup and focus to prove his determination over the past 18 months, Dillon’s challenge was demonstrating that he was more than just a NASCAR legacy.
Considering that his grandfather is Richard Childress, a six-time Cup championship owner, it would be easy for pundits to cry nepotism when evaluating Dillon’s tenure with the team. But throughout this title run — and in previous seasons — Dillon has exceeded all expectations while balancing full-time racing with schooling. His championship Truck season was no different.
Truck series championship owner Kevin Harvick, who competes in the Sprint Cup Series for Richard Childress Racing, has been impressed with both Dillons — Austin, and his younger brother Ty, who won the ARCA title and will take over the No. 3 truck for his sibling this season.
“Those kids do a great job, and the great part about Austin and Ty (is) they’re good kids, and they’ve got their head on their shoulders right, and I don’t think that’ll be the last Dillon that you see come through the championship circle in this Truck series,” Harvick said. “They’ve got a good future. Obviously they’re like sponges. They listen to you and they’ve got a lot of history and heritage with their Pop-Pop (Childress), as they call him.”
“Austin kept it together so good under the pressure,” Childress added. “For a 21-year-old guy — man, to be able to hang in there and do what he did was very special.”
Austin Dillon is already building his own legacy. He won two races, five poles and became the first NASCAR Truck driver to follow up top rookie honors with the title the following year. The third generation racer who will revive the No. 3 Chevrolet in the Nationwide Series this season has already exhibited promise.
As impressive as Dillon was on the track, what perhaps is even more remarkable is his appreciation of the fans. When Dillon was named Most Popular Driver at the banquet, he was genuinely stunned. He called the accolade “the best thing that ever happened to me” and believes “people want to see hard work, dedication and winning.”
In the upcoming seasons, fans can expect those traits from both Dillon and Stenhouse. Despite their youth, both drivers have an appreciation for what it takes to rise to the next level. And each driver realizes there will be no resting upon current success.
“I have a lot of work to do,” Dillon said. “People expect big things. I got to get in the gym this offseason. I have to focus on racing. I have this year and it paid off but each step is going to be harder.
“I have the drive and the want but I have to get after it harder each and every week. People expect this out of me and I have to prove that I can do it.”